Fifty-two years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and 55 years after Jim Crow, Mississippi is burning again.
Phil Bryant, the now-former governor of Mississippi – a state that was one of the flashpoints of the civil rights movement, and a haven for the Ku Klux Klan – has sparked understandable outrage after tweeting a racist claim that if the Magnolia State elects its first Black senator, there would be 1,000 years of darkness.
“I intend to work for @cindyhydesmith as if the fate of America depended on her single election,” Gov. Phil Bryant tweeted on January 2. “If Mike Espy and the liberal Democrats gain the Senate, we will take that first step into a thousand years of darkness.”
Bryant, a Republican, left office on January 14 after serving two terms.
Espy lost to Hyde-Smith in Mississippi’s special U.S. Senate runoff election in 2018. After announcing that he was running again this year, Espy said he could win by building a diverse coalition of voters.
With a victory, Espy would become Mississippi’s first Black senator in more than 139 years.
“We’re going after everybody — white, black, Democrat, persuadable Republican, persuadable moderates and those in the middle,” Espy told the AP in November 2019.
“But I know where they are now. I’m not flying blind.” During his first campaign against Hyde-Smith, a video surfaced showing her praising a supporter by saying she’d attend a “public hanging” if he invited her.
Bryant rekindled those sentiments with his tweet, setting social media ablaze with anger.
Many pointed out the state’s history of racism and recent and ongoing problems at Parchman Prison, a former plantation that housed hundreds of slaves and whose population includes more than 60 percent Blacks; the state’s debtor’s prison that punishes mostly African Americans; and a recent state Supreme Court decision to affirm a 12-year prison sentence for a Black man who turned over a cell phone to a corrections officer.
“Darkness follows Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant around,” feminist Paula Cain wrote on Twitter. “Every time that old white man opens his racist, uneducated mouth — darkness flows out.”
Sharon Raynor, a retired military officer, agreed with Cain. “The Mississippi governor is still living in the Jim Crow era,” Raynor stated.
Alvon Phillips, a medical technician, said the comments are in line with what the state represents.
“Anyone can clearly see how racist and prejudiced this Mississippi governor is and what race of people he truly represents; the only race whose interests he cares to advance,” Phillips stated. “Now, you can understand why Mississippi is last in everything. Last in education, wages, and development.”
Journalist Joe Jurado analyzed Bryant’s comments in a January 9 article for The Root.
“Mississippi has a very long and very violent history of racism: 600 black people were lynched between 1877 to 1950, the most of any state,” Jurado recalled.
“Up until 2017, the state still had predominately segregated schools. This makes it all the more surprising that the governor believes Mike Espy being elected to the Senate would open the doors of Guf and bring about the fourth impact,” Jurado stated.
“We’re talking about the same man who, after Hyde-Smith came under fire for her lynching comments, went on a podium and compared Black women getting abortions to genocide. Hyperbolic racism just seems to be this dude’s go-to.”
In a June 1964 profile, The New York Times called Mississippi “the most segregated state, and noted that, “Through most of the state’s history, the White supremacists have been able to control government at the local and state levels.”
A 2019 lawsuit filed by three Black residents challenged Mississippi’s requirement that candidates running for statewide office must win both a majority of the popular vote and at least 62 of 122 state House of Representatives districts.
The law, which was put into place in 1890 when White politicians openly sought to suppress the Black vote, states that no candidate fulfills both requirements, the House then decides a statewide election, and representatives aren’t required to vote along with their districts.
“This racist electoral scheme achieved, and continues to achieve, the framers’ goals by tying the statewide election process to the power structure of the House,” the plaintiffs stated in the lawsuit.
“So long as white Mississippians controlled the House, they would also control the elections of statewide officials.”
In an op-ed about Mississippi for The Atlantic late last year, Jesmyn Ward, an author who teaches creative writing at Tulane University, said racism makes itself known in very vocal and confrontational ways.
“But perhaps the most tragic manifestation of racist sentiment in Mississippi is silent. Built into the very bones of this place. My state starves its people and, in doing so, actively resists Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy,” Ward stated.
“Our Republican lawmakers have made an effort to undercut programs that serve the poor, maybe because so many people of color in Mississippi live in poverty and depend on social programs for help.”